- - Sunday, January 31, 2016

Unaccommodating. Militant. Radical. Yes — I am all the things they say I am — I am a black woman. I engage in a revolutionary act on a daily basis — I choose to love myself. I embrace the kink of my hair, the hue of my skin, the dialect of my community and the legacy of my ancestors despite the current and historical efforts that work to normalize everything that I am not. I am the “other” in the current world order.

My childhood friends want to know what happened to me. They want to know when I became so fixated on my blackness. They ask, “Why is it always about race?” They don’t understand, but that’s the first lesson about privilege — they don’t have to.

So I return to their question, “Why does everything have to be about race?” Throughout my childhood I constantly asked myself the same question. Being a black girl in a predominately white community left me in a relentless state of perplexion. Micro-aggressions filled by childhood. I vividly remember my first boyfriend telling me that I could never come to his house. He told me that his parents would disown him if he continued to date me. I asked myself, “Why is everything about race?”

I can also clearly recall the time I went to a high school football game 10 miles away in the inner city with my suburban classmates. Once we arrived to the stadium the mother driving reminded us: “Make sure you don’t give those black girls any looks.” Again I asked myself, “Why is everything about race?”

When an aunt of one of my closest friends referred to black people on the street as niggers while I was standing right next to her, I asked myself yet again, “Why is everything about race?”

Of course, the latter two experiences left those families mortified as they quickly remembered my identity and begged for my forgiveness — nonetheless these experiences were telling. Perhaps these words and attitudes slipped from their mouths so easily because, as my white peers always reminded me, I was different. “Brittany, you’re not like them. You don’t talk like them or dress like them. You’re like one of us.” My peers had placed me on a pedestal aside from the rest of my black community because of my ability to conform.

I learned how to conform in my household. Tightly-coiled, kinky black hair was far from glamorous so my mother had been straightening her hair for decades. She would end up putting a chemical straightener in my hair too after I left a pool party with my white friends one summer afternoon. I didn’t understand why my hair dried up into an Afro instead of down my back like my peers. However, there was no need for me to worry. Society taught my mother the answer. Over the last two centuries the beauty industry had helped women achieve the dominant beauty ideal. The white aesthetic has never been far out of reach. Alongside my mother, my father read the conformity manual step-by-step, he was the “American Dream.” A black man born in the segregated south that “lifted himself up by the bootstraps.” He started his career as a dishwasher to ended up becoming an executive chef. He was able to afford to move his family into a community where his daughter could receive the best education. He had made it! We had made it! However, it wasn’t until more than a decade later that I would learn why we had to move into a community where no one looked like us to ensure I received a quality education. (I guess property-tax based funding i.e. educational apartheid aren’t always popular topics for discussion.)

The omission or dismissal of my existential experience colored my childhood from the playground to the classroom. Representation in my educational experience simply did not exist. My history as a woman of color was nowhere to be found. I remember taking a class in high school called, “Holocaust/Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity.” I struggled to understand why African slavery was not considered relevant enough to be covered anywhere in the class material. Was the Maafa not the genocide of millions of black people, their language, their music and their culture? Perhaps it was not discussed because as I was told, slavery and discrimination in the United States were things of the past. (Ironically, I can name a few tragic world events in which people are told to never forget. America engages in selective memory.)

Proponents of the “everything is equal today” ideology continuously argued that I was the quintessential example, the “token” black honors student who proved their claims. Conveniently, I was also reminded that I would be the first to gain acceptance into college, not because of my grade point average, or the myriad activities I participated in or the leadership positions I held, but because of affirmative action. This is the paradox of the black middle class — simultaneously celebrated and erased. My perceived success has always been predicated on my ability to assimilate and transcend my blackness — a dehumanizing reality. I grew up believing that if only I didn’t speak about by blackness or act in ways which could be perceived as black, then I could fit in. I could transcend it. But transcendence is a myth. America is not the “melting pot” of pluralism, it is the breeding ground of assimilation. I know better now. I’m no longer interested in indulging in respectability politics. I can hand anyone that asks a long list of things that won’t save black folk from systemic racism, up to and including our silence and the total college degrees we possess. However, I will tell you a little bit about what my college degree did afford me.

I was brought up in the culture of capitalism and rugged individualism. This culture insisted that I major in something that would bring me as much wealth as possible. Monetary acquisition is how most Americans define success. However, in a plan greater than myself I stumbled upon the college of liberal arts and ended up in a sociology class. I stared at the statistics that told me black people and other minorities are at the bottom of the barrel for every aspect of life from housing and education to incarceration and health conditions. Looking at the empirical quantitative data affirmed the narrative I’d always been sold, people of color are clearly pathological. But I knew there was a larger picture and African-American studies helped me find the portrait. As one of my favorite professors once explained, “Sociology gives you the statistics but African-American studies gives you the narrative behind the statistics.” Ah-ha! We’ve found the disconnect between the African-American population and mainstream America. Hence, I return to the earlier question, “Why is everything about race?”

Maybe it’s because our primary and secondary schools do not adequately educate their students on the black experience unless it fits America’s enduring jingoism. While reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday, I can’t help but think about what it means when a radical’s legacy is used as the popular face of integration and colorblindness. White supremacy makes it possible to take a single line from a long speech completely out of context to sedate a man’s legacy. It makes him into a martyr and washes away his murder. The irony kicks in when you realize the FBI tweets about his birthday less than two decades after his family won a civil case against the state. In the same vein, since society likes to reinvent Rosa Parks’ legacy as well, she wasn’t the first to refuse her seat nor was she physically tired that day on the bus. She was tired of systemic discrimination, namely white rape condoned by the police state that she had been fighting against as an activist for decades. But who knows, maybe it’s not the lack of inclusionary education. Maybe it’s a result of wealth disparities and historical redlining/de facto segregation that ensure our communities are not diverse. We all know that the second too many people of color move into a community, the housing value drops and white flight begins. Our mere presence is seen as an uninvited weapon.

How can people possibly begin to understand race and its complexities if they do not want to talk about it, do not learn about it and more then often live in a homogenous community where they can’t interact with people from different walks of life? In my adult life, I have found that those who are constantly asking, “Why does everything have to be about race?” are those that do not have to live with race everyday. There is not a day that I wake up that I am not aware of my race and how it affects me. If I accidently use my black dialect in this setting, will they think I’m less educated? If I wear this hoodie and sag my pants, will they assume that I’m a thug? If I wear my hair natural, unstraightened, will they still view me as beautiful? It is a constant battle of twoness. It is a performance and I hate the feeling of having to be somebody else.

It’s extremely difficult to understand something that you are not familiar with. Nevertheless, it is powerful beyond measure to acknowledge the unknown and make an effort to educate oneself instead of dismissing it because it’s uncomfortable and foreign. Much in the same way that I can acknowledge that my experience as a light skinned black girl from a wealthy community will never be the same as the struggle of my darker skinned sistas or those from impoverished communities. But I digress, I’ve spent way too much time in this article speaking to the hegemonic group and it’s not about y’all. I’m not here to re-establish the traditional power dynamic. I’m not here to make folks comfortable. I’m here to love my community, myself and my blackness in radical and unapologetic ways.

Angela Davis. Nelson Mandela. Marcus Garvey. Malcolm X. Marimba Ani. Audre Lorde. Aime Cesaire. Frantz Fanon. Sojourner Truth. Fannie Lou Hamer. Ptah Hotep. Ida B. Wells. Anna Julia Cooper. Cornel West. Toussaint Louverture. Frederick Douglass. Paula Giddings. Martin Luther King Jr. Carter G. Woodson. Assata Shakur. Thomas Sankara. James Baldwin. Mary Church Terrell. Nefertiti. Rosa Parks. WEB Du Bois. Toni Morrison. Patricia Hill Collins. Nat Turner. bell hooks. Frances Cress Welsing. Hazel Carby. Muhammad Ali. Paul Robeson. Hatshepsut. Yaa Asantewa. Harriet Tubman. Langston Hughes. Mary McLeod Bethune. A. Philip Randolph. Ella Baker. Thurgood Marshall. Sonia Sanchez. Maxwell Stanford. Huey P. Newton. Stokely Carmichael. Patrice Lumumba. Kwame Nkrumah. Daudi Azibo. Nzingha. John Henrik Clarke. Cheikh Anta Diop. Chancellor Williams. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

I’m here to carry on their legacy. For their words and their actions validate and liberate my existence in ways that our Founding Fathers never could. Lorde once said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” So I’m not here for slow reform, we’ve done that for the last 400 years. I don’t want your leftovers or a last minute seat at the table.

Besides, legacies that conceal centuries of rape, murder and domination for personal gain are nothing that I’m longing to align with. Modern “democracy” was extremely expensive.

Knowledge of self works as my ammunition. So call me ….

Unaccommodating. Militant. Radical. Yes — I am all the things they say I am. Radical just means grasping things at the root and this revolution is far from over.

Brittany Lewis completed her undergraduate degree at Temple University in African-American studies. She is currently a PhD student in the History Department at George Washington University. Her research interests include United States racial discourses, black radicalism and African-American gender politics.

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